African tribesmen have learned to converse with a nondescript brown bird, in a rare case of “mutualism” with wild animals.A Cambridge University-led study found the Yao people of Mozambique have developed a specialised language with bush birds, known as “honeyguides”, as part of a hunting pact that benefits both species.
The birds guide the tribesmen to hives hidden high in tree crevasses, then wait while the bees are smoked out and their nests broken open. The birds help themselves to the wax after the men have taken the honey.
Using animals as hunting assistants is nothing new, with dogs and falcons harnessed this way for millennia. But partnerships with wild animals are extremely rare, with the only other cases thought to involve dolphins herding fish and whales.
“The relationship involves free-living wild animals whose interactions with humans have probably evolved through natural selection, (possibly) over the course of hundreds of thousands of years,” said Cambridge bird ecologist Claire Spottiswoode.
The partnership with the honeyguides was first recorded by a missionary in 1588, with tribesmen elsewhere in eastern Africa found to have forged similar bonds. The new study, reported today in the journal Science, teased out the two-way communication that seals the deal.
The researchers found the men summoned the birds using a distinct call — a loud trill followed by a grunt. The birds replied with a distinct call of their own, then flitted from tree to tree pointing out hives. The researchers recorded the hunters’ calls and played them back to summon the birds. Compared with other recordings, the call doubled the chances of securing help from birds and more than tripled the odds of finding honey.
Dr Spottiswoode said people in other parts of Africa used different sounds for the same purpose. Hadza tribesmen of Tanzania recruit honeyguides with a melodious whistle. She said the honeyguide’s unassuming plumage belied its brutal interactions with other species.
“Like a cuckoo, it lays its eggs in the nests of other birds, and its chick hatches equipped with sharp hooks at the tips of its beak (that it) uses to kill foster siblings as soon as they hatch.
“(It’s) a master of deception and exploitation as well as co-operation — a Jekyll and Hyde of the bird world.”
By John Ross
With many thanks to The Australian